By Kinda Mohamadieh, works for the Arab NGO Network for Development and will be one of the speakers at the first Electoral Reform Society Annual Conference: Navigating the New Democracy, on Tuesday 26 June 2012.
Peoples’ revolutions and uprisings in the Arab region brought forward a lot of aspirations for change at various levels, including the re-emergence of citizens’ engagement in the public sphere. Today, the peoples of several Arab countries have reclaimed their spaces as citizens who have a say in constructing the political and governance systems in their countries.
The sustainability of any democratic practice to be achieved as a result will rest upon the ability to establish a new basis for the relationship between the citizen and the state, rooted in the respect of rights, active participation, the existence of accountability mechanisms, and acknowledgement of mutual responsibilities. This necessitates maintaining a dynamic role by citizens who actively practice their citizenship, in its economic, social, political, as well as cultural dimensions. Indeed, as much as establishing democratic political governance is important, democracy needs to be underpinned by a democratization process at the economic and social levels.
What is evident from the previous decades of political rule and policy practice in the Arab countries is that the tools of oppression and maintaining dictatorship were of a political and security-focused nature, as well as an economic nature. In many cases, political and economic powers converged, whereby economic resources were increasingly centralized and monopolized under the control of the few that were either part of the ruling family, party, or close to those circles. Convergence of political and economic powers is a phenomenon that both developing and developed economies are increasingly witnessing. Moreover, a distinctive feature of economic policy making in many Arab countries have been its reactionary nature to what is expected, demanded, and sometimes conditioned by external actors, including international financial institutions and countries with economic interests in the region. Thus, one can claim that the state in the Arab region took a passive strategy on the economic and developmental front.
Consequently, for the last three decades, economies in the Arab region generally have been increasingly constructed around a form of growth that neglects development objectives and peoples’ economic and social rights. Efforts were focused on convergence to the mainstream accepted policy practice and not on designing policies that suit achieved development levels and targeted development objectives. Policy makers have prioritized integration in the global economy through trade and investment liberalization, borrowing, expansion of privatization and overall economic deregulation. National productive capacities have been marginalized along with efforts to address inequalities, empowering people through employment generation, just wage policies and redistribution mechanisms, as well as establishing comprehensive rights-based social plans. Such socio-economic context underpinned the exclusion of citizens from participation in the economic cycles of their countries, which also rooted their social and political exclusion.
Accordingly, one of the core questions facing citizen’s of Arab countries witnessing change is whether the peoples’ revolutions laid down the foundations for a governance system and policy practice built on rights, equality, and justice. Concurrently, would the peoples’ movements potentially establish a framework to question the economic and social governance structures from a rights-focused approach?
Such rethinking of our national economic realities cannot be detached from grappling with our global realities and global economic governance. The latter is characterized by the dominance of orthodox economic thinking, and the deficiency of democratic practice and representation in global governance institutions as well as global economic policy and law making. Within such context, there is a threat of “reducing the meaning of democracy to electing representatives who irrespective of their ideological affiliations are compelled to pursue the same social and economic policies” (Chimni, 2006*). Thus, our challenges on this front emerge from national dynamics as well as global realities.
This context sums some of the main challenges to reclaiming citizenship and democracy in the Arab countries and defines the possible clash down on spaces for people to draw up new economic and social realities. Fostering national leadership that prioritizes national public interest based on democratic and developmental visions and strategies remain a challenge in Arab countries. Moreover, considering the interdependence of our realities, beyond the defining borders of our citizenship, is another challenge we need to face. Amartya Sen notes “confining our interests to local/ national ones cannot be the basis for understanding the demands for justice” (Carnegie Council event – October 2, 2009).
Kinda Mohamadieh works for the Arab NGO Network for Development, find out more at www.annd.org
*Chimni, B.S., 2006. Third World Approaches to International Law: A Manifesto. International Community Law Review 8.